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With Dems in Charge, GOP Congressman is Optimistic on Cuba

By Pierre Atlas

The US embargo on travel and trade with Cuba has not achieved its goals, but instead has helped facilitate the Castro regime's political longevity. If anything, it has been one of the most counterproductive foreign policies in American history. And it is a policy that is opposed by the majority of Americans. According to a December 2006 Gallup Poll, 67% of Americans favor reestablishing diplomatic ties with Cuba--an increase of 12% since 2004.

Last month, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced House Resolution 654, co-sponsored by the Ways and Means chair, Democrat Charlie Rangel. The bill would allow Americans to travel to Cuba, effectively ending our four-decade-old travel embargo.

I recently spoke with Flake from his office in Arizona. I asked the Republican congressman, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, how the Democratic takeover of Congress might impact on US Cuba policy and on his longstanding goal of ending the Cuba travel embargo. "The change will help," he said. "Tom DeLay was always strong on keeping this policy."

"With the Democrats in charge, an amendment will probably make it through conference committee," Flake told me. "So the president would have to either veto the legislation or negotiate."

The impact of the power shift in Congress cannot be overestimated. When the GOP was in charge, the mere threat of a veto from President Bush would get any Cuba amendment taken out of a bill, even if it had bipartisan support. "We certainly have more leverage with the administration now, given who's in charge," Flake said.

Flake thinks Bush may see the writing on the wall. "I think the president will move preemptively to change the [travel] regulations before having to face a veto or no-veto." A spotlight of public and media attention will be focused on a veto threat, "and he would have to explain to Americans why they can't travel to Cuba." Because there is no longer any logical justification for the embargo, Flake thinks this would be a losing proposition for Bush.

The Arizona congressman is one of three minority members of the Foreign Affairs oversight subcommittee. Bill Delahunt, the subcommittee chair, "will likely hold hearings on Radio and TV Marti," Flake said. Marti's broadcasts have been jammed by the Cubans from day one. The project isn't working and is an embarrassment, besides being a waste of money. Flake told me that if the subcommittee does take on Marti, it will likely have bi-partisan support from both himself and fellow GOP committeeman Ron Paul.

Flake is an unlikely advocate for Cuba policy reform. A fifth-generation Arizonan, the Sunbelt Republican is best known for his fiscal conservatism and his crusade against earmarks. He is a staunch Republican who voted against the House Iraq resolution. But he is passionate about ending the Cuba embargo, a position few Republicans are willing to take.

So what drives Jeff Flake on Cuba?

"I don't have a lot of Cuban-Americans in my district or farmers affected by the trade embargo," he said. "This is an issue of freedom for me. My constituents should be able to travel wherever they want unless there is a compelling national security reason." And there is no such compelling reason for Cuba, he insists. "We can travel to China, so why not Cuba?"

US foreign policy is more effective when applied consistently, he says, and "Republicans should have a consistent foreign policy. This is an issue that is bigger than Cuba." The travel embargo runs counter to our calls for freedom and democracy, and only feeds into the agendas of radicals like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Flake observed.

Flake doesn't just critique the embargo as inconsistent or failed policy. There is moral outrage in his voice.

"We have been told by the president and the Cuban exile community that once Fidel goes, things will change overnight. But anyone who has been there since July can see that the handoff has already occurred, and there has been no rioting in the streets." Cuba is transitioning, and "we as a country are sitting on the sidelines. We have no influence there."

Instead, "our policy in Cuba is sophomoric, with electronic billboards describing free lunches in Miami" to show that Cubans have it better in America. Such propaganda efforts are ridiculous and insult everyone's intelligence. "I questioned [Secretary of State] Rice on this when she testified before our committee. This seems beneath us. I think we're a better country than that."

Flake's mentioning of the electronic billboard made me think of my own visit to Cuba last May. The US Interest Section in Havana has a huge electronic billboard for flashing anti-Castro and pro-US propaganda to be read by the Cuban people. But the Cuban regime has placed dozens of tall flagpoles and huge black flags in front of the building to obstruct the view. From a distance, all you see are the flags, not the message (or even the building). Such childish games between the US and Cuba would be laughable if the issues at hand weren't so deadly serious.

If anything, lifting the embargo and allowing the free exchange of people and ideas would threaten the Cuban regime, not us. Flake predicts that the Cubans would probably impose their own travel restrictions. But that's OK with Flake.

"If somebody should limit your travel, it should be a Communist. It should be someone other than us."

Pierre M. Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

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